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Making reality of virtual reality

Steve LaValle, affiliate faculty member in the Artificial Intelligence Group, has been working at Oculus VR, the company who created the virtual reality goggles called the Rift. Facebook recently purchased the Rift for $2 billion.

Published on April 21, 2014

In the past year, Steve LaValle (BS CompE ’90, MSEE ’93, PhD ’95) has visited the sundrenched hills of Tuscany. He’s kicked back his feet in a South Korean movie theater for a private screening. He’s even visited the childhood homes of his coworkers, seen the streets where they learned to pop wheelies and shoot hoops. And he did it all without leaving his sunny office in Irvine, California.

LaValle is one of the technology gurus at Oculus VR, the company poised to make virtual reality a consumer-ready reality. In addition to virtual travel, LaValle, on leave from his post of professor of computer science at Illinois, has also combated zombies, flown in space dogfights, leapt rivers of lava, walked the plank, and even tumbled furniture with his elephant trunk— the gaming activities normally associated with virtual reality.

The Oculus device, known as Rift, looks somewhat like an over-sized pair of ski goggles. It is LaValle’s job as principal scientist, essentially, to make the user forget the goggles exist at all. When the user turns slightly, to peer around the corner of a virtual building, the view, which is displayed on two lenses inside the device, should shift naturally.

Whether most people, during day-to-day activities, recognize certain visual phenomena—the rate at which imagery moves on the periphery, for example—our brains notice when they don’t happen correctly. Strap on any of the virtual reality headsets that have been attempted over the past four decades—excluding the Oculus Rift—and it’s likely that you’ll experience something like motion sickness (or rather, simulator sickness, since very little motion is involved). You’ll feel nauseous or dizzy. You’ll probably shelve the goggles indefinitely—or sell them.

LaValle’s team, however, is using an array of relatively new devices—particularly micromachined gyroscopes, accelerometers, and infrared LEDs—to track the movement of the head. Combined with sensing and filtering algorithms that were the subject of LaValle’s most recent book, aptly titled Sensing and Filtering. Oculus simulation goggles have gotten the virtual-reality industry around that long-term obstacle. “Thanks to these modern sensors, we can predict where the head will be to within a few milliseconds,” LaValle said. “We end up with very responsive head-tracking from that.”

At the Consumer Electronics Show last January in Las Vegas, the company unveiled an updated prototype, which left journalists and technophiles swooning. A writer for Business Insider reported that the Rift is “one of the most completely bizarre, wonderful, unique, laugh-out-loud, holy cow! video experiences I have ever had.”

The technology news website The Verge awarded Oculus its Best of Show award, and Wired magazine gave it one of their 10 Best of CES awards. “It’s one of those rare products you know will change everything,” a Wired correspondent wrote.

Investors are equally impressed. Shortly before the event, it was announced that Andreessen Horowitz, an investment firm established by Illinois alumnus and Netscape cofounder Mark Andreessen (BS CS ’94), provided the lead funding for a $75 million investment in Oculus. An Andreessen Horowitz partner told The Verge, “For me, it was up there with the first time I saw Apple II, Mac, the web, Google, iPhone.”

While the schedule for a mass retail release has yet to be announced, LaValle indicated that the product is nearing completion. “We’re certainly very aware that the world’s not going to wait forever, so, we’re going along frantically, and we’re growing fast ... but we don’t want to sacrifice the quality of the experience,” he said. “We really have to nail it, you know. We have to get all of the pieces right.”

For LaValle, working in the video game industry is, in a way, a return to his roots. He was just entering his teens when electronics began supplanting mechanics in the arcades. The days of the pinball wizard were giving way to the champion of the high-score list. And LaValle was there, experiencing the revolution at its infancy. “I was almost living in video arcades, especially after being really inspired by the movie Tron. That’s one of my favorite movies, and you know, it was great,” he recalled. “I got into Donkey Kong and Tron games and all kinds of stuff.”

That interest as a teenager turned him onto programming, and he started developing video games on a home computer (another technological revolution that was just taking off). “But then I got more and more interested in education, learning more math and engineering and science and things like that,” LaValle said. “I’m not much of a visual artist, so I probably wouldn’t have been a good professional game developer in that sense.”

LaValle pursued his undergraduate and graduate degrees at ECE ILLINOIS, where he worked with Professor Seth Hutchinson, developing a framework for robot motion planning. Then, in 1998, while he was a professor at Iowa State University, his group introduced an algorithm, known as rapidly exploring random trees (RRTs), which optimizes paths through unknown spaces.

Interestingly, even though LaValle isn’t employing those algorithms at Oculus, some video game programmers do, in fact, use them. “If you look around, you’ll see that on some game blogs, you’ll find someone talking about RRTs,” LaValle said. “People always thought that if I was going to end up in the game industry, it might be for motion planning ... but no, in the end it’s the sensing and the filtering, and all of that stuff that, you know, I thought I was taking a great departure from my childhood love by doing that, and all of a sudden, wham, I’m right in the middle of it.”

While Oculus is designed with video gamers in mind, limitless applications could arise from the technology. Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have demonstrated how virtual reality can be used for robotic control. An operator wearing the Oculus Rift can see from the perspective of a robotic arm, and additional motion tracking fuses the two worlds. When the operator reaches forward and grabs at something seen via the Rift, thus closing fingers on air, the robotic arm does the same, but actually grips the physical object.

Coupled with 360-degree video cameras, the device could be used to give virtual museum tours, revolutionizing online art history classes. Movie buffs could order virtual tickets to the Oscars, with directors and movie stars on all sides.

One of the beauties of Oculus is that it taps into the collective imagination and enthusiasm of programmers and hardware developers around the world. Already, there are over 50,000 Oculus devices in the hands of programmers—professionals, yes, but also people like the teenage LaValle, who designed video games at home, just for the fun of it.

Architects and urban planners could tour their computer-generated renderings, walk the virtual halls, and then make adjustments. Perhaps even, with safety concerns attended to, one could ride an elliptical machine or a stationary bike along the virtual coast of Mauritius, or through the high meadows of the Swiss Alps, with wildflowers blooming on all sides.

“You know, what’s funny is trying to explain it to people,” LaValle said. “I imagine what it must have been like for people to try to explain television when there was only radio. You could listen to a radio broadcast about how wonderful television is, but, well, you just have to try it. The Oculus Rift is the same way.”

Editor’s note: In March, Facebook announced plans to purchase Oculus VR for around $2 billion in cash and stock.

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  • Steven M. Lavalle
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